Antoinette Johnson: Studs, Snakes and Elvira

A gigantic snake was wrapping around her, embracing her with its strong limbless body. Antoinette Johnson responded to her pet snake’s hunger for affection with a motherly tenderness, and to my entertainment with a hint of friendly irritation.  Just as if an old friend of hers wouldn’t shut up about this new guy she met. “Her name is Schoen. It means beautiful in German,” she smiles.

Antoinette invited me to her new place at Bushwick Avenue, to take pictures and to chat about her upcoming solo show in Manhattan.  It was a sunny Sunday morning, but she was ready in her eccentric outfit and distinctive make up. 

At  Le Salon d’Art, she will be showing her paintings, but calling Antoinette Johnson a painter would hardly do justice to her being. Antoinette is first and foremost a strong individual with a colorful, visually rich soul that begs to be let on the surface. She is living her existence, as she is her art.

Antoinette’s appearance plays an important role in her creative expression, and it’s not easy to put a label on it. Antoinette has always been fascinated with clothes and with fashion running parallel to trends. She uses the term ‘hair sculpture’ to describe the hair she wears and creates for others. Antoinette’s look combines rough and gentle and is full of pop and sub-cultural references. Antoinette herself names cartoon character Elvira as her first and foremost influence, although she adds she’s not trying to copy the look. As she goes on in naming important influences on her, she names a fetish model Kym McLaughlin aka Razor Candi who did her first Mohawk back in the days in Florida. Antoinette recalls that growing up and wanting to express herself in Tampa and Palmetto, which wasn’t always easy. She has met many good people who were important in her life, but still her departure to New York felt like a major liberation.

Shortly after coming to New York, Antoinette landed in Bushwick. She moved in a loft at 950 Hart Street, and opened a big new chapter of her life. “I started to paint again because everybody at 950 Hart was painting all the time, and it was just so inspiring,” she smiles. Very soon the loft was transformed into a gallery that Antoinette co-ran with her roommates, and the course of almost two years brought a ton of new experiences and people into her life. Unfortunately, the history of 950 Hart ended somewhat pre-maturely, but ultimately the important stuff remained.

Antoinette’s distinctive style and visual language has soon started to surface in her paintings. She started to paint very flat, with a meticulous attention to detail applying bright neon colors onto the surface. Her art is dominated by a female figure wearing a Mohawk on a neon background. Almost like a mythical reflection of her own self is the female figure in Antoinette’s painting, and then the painting has to serve like a mirror into the ideal colorful world that is much better and much more fun that the real one.

Just like Antoinette herself, her paintings are full of dualities and contradictions. Both Antoinette and the figure in her paintings are rebellious and vulnerable at the same time. Details of their appearance, such as the Mohawk, studs and spikes refer to cyberpunk and fetish. But the feminine side to the artwork and the almost child-like choice of colors and themes are present just as intensely. I believe that her piece The Cardiac Disease Commonly Known As Love is a great sample of this omnipresent duality. The female figure is holding her heart that she cut out from her chest. As ugly and rough as the presence of an organ might look in a painting, there is this playful and funny element to it that feels almost as if we were looking at a page of teenage girl’s scrapbook.

I remember Sunday mornings at 950 Hart. In the morning light Antoinette was wearing a cotton shirt and no make up. In the zone, oblivious to her surrounding she would sip on her coffee and paint. She looked so peaceful and intimate. I remember wondering where did the neon-color-Mohawk-wearing cyber girl from last night go? Antoinette smiled softly and I realized that these “contradictions” are in perfect symbiosis and allow for Antoinette’s perfect world to exist, right here on Earth. In Bushwick.

 Manhattan Rampage: The Art of Antoinette Johnson – A solo exhibition opens on Thursday, October 7, 7-9PM at Le Salon d’Art at 90 Stanton Street, New York. 

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